An estimated 30% of adults experience insomnia, and a new study from Columbia University Irving Medical Center by researchers at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons suggests that diet may be partly to blame.
Postmenopausal women consuming a diet high in refined carbohydrates- particularly added sugars- were more likely to develop insomnia
The study found that postmenopausal women who consumed a diet high in refined carbohydrates- particularly added sugars- were more likely to develop insomnia.
Women whose diet included higher amounts of vegetables, fiber, and whole fruit (not juice) were less likely to develop problems with insomnia.
‘Insomnia is often treated with cognitive behavioral therapy or medications’
“Insomnia is often treated with cognitive behavioral therapy or medications, but these can be expensive or carry side effects. By identifying other factors that lead to insomnia, we may find straightforward and low-cost interventions with fewer potential side effects,” said James Gangwisch, PhD, study’s senior author, assistant professor at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.
The findings were published Dec. 11 online in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.
Link between diet and sleep is an emerging research area
Previous studies have explored a possible link between refined carbohydrates and insomnia, but results have been inconsistent. And because the studies didn’t follow individuals over time, it’s not clear if a diet that’s high in refined carbs triggered the onset of insomnia, or if insomnia caused individuals to eat more sweets.
One way to determine if carb intake is causing sleep problems is to look for the emergence of insomnia in people with different diets.
In the current study, Gangwisch and his team gathered data from more than 50,000 participants in the Women’s Health Initiative who had completed food diaries. The researchers looked at whether women with higher dietary glycemic index were more likely to develop insomnia.
All carbs aren’t created equally
Different kinds and amounts of carbohydrates increase blood sugar levels to varying degrees. Highly refined carbohydrates; such as added sugars, white bread, white rice, and soda; have a higher glycemic index, and cause a more rapid increase in blood sugar.
“When blood sugar is raised quickly, your body reacts by releasing insulin, and the resulting drop in blood sugar can lead to the release of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, which can interfere with sleep,” Gangwisch says.
The researchers hypothesized that the rapid spikes and troughs in blood sugar after eating refined carbs may trigger insomnia.
Refined carbs triggered insomnia
They found that the higher the dietary glycemic index; particularly when fueled by the consumption of added sugars and processed grains; the greater the risk of developing insomnia. They also discovered that women who consumed more vegetables and whole fruits (not juices) were less likely to develop insomnia.
“Whole fruits contain sugar, but the fiber in them slow the rate of absorption to help prevent spikes in blood sugar,” says Gangwisch. “This suggests that the dietary culprit triggering the women’s insomnia was the highly processed foods that contain larger amounts of refined sugars that aren’t found naturally in food.”
Authors suspect that these findings may also hold true in a broader population
Since most people, not just postmenopausal women, experience a rapid rise in blood sugar after eating refined carbohydrates, the authors suspect that these findings may also hold true in a broader population.
“Based on our findings, we would need randomized clinical trials to determine if a dietary intervention, focused on increasing the consumption of whole foods and complex carbohydrates, could be used to prevent and treat insomnia,” says Gangwisch.
- Gangwisch, J.E., et al. (2019) High glycemic index and glycemic load diets as risk factors for insomnia: analyses from the Women’s Health Initiative. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/nqz275.
Razi Berry is the founder and publisher of the journal Naturopathic Doctor News & Review, which has been in print since 2005, and the premier consumer-faced website of naturopathic medicine, NaturalPath. She is the host of The Love is Medicine Project docuseries, The Natural Cancer Prevention Summit, The Heart Revolution-Heal, Empower and Follow Your Heart, and the popular 10-week Sugar Free Summer program. From a near death experience as a young girl that healed her failing heart, to later overcoming infertility and chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia through naturopathic medicine, Razi has lived the mind/body healing paradigm. Her projects uniquely capture the tradition and philosophy of naturopathy: The healing power of nature, the vital life force in every living thing and the undeniable role that science and mind/body medicine have in creating health and overcoming dis-ease. You can follow Razi on social media: Facebook at Razi Berry, Instagram at Razi.Berry and join the Love is Medicine group to explore the convergence of love and health. Look for more, and listen to more Love is Medicine podcast episodes here.